Who's to blame for Britney?
When people talk of the dumbing-down of our culture, they invariably make a scapegoat of the media. But high art, says Alan Rusbridger, is everyone's responsibility
Thursday May 8, 2003
Last autumn I spent a couple of days at the New York Times. The staff (not to mention several thousand readers) were still recovering. On the paper's sober, hallowed front page - the nearest thing journalism can boast to a tablet of stone - there had recently appeared a story about Britney Spears. The Manhattan sky had fallen in. Fights broke out among Times staffers. The paper's switchboard was jammed. The editor was denounced the length and breadth of the Upper East Side. It had finally happened: the great New York Times had dumbed down.
To visiting British eyes, the debate seemed a little old hat. I thought back to raging rows we had had back in April 1994 over the death of Kurt Cobain. There were some on the staff who thought Cobain beneath the attention of Guardian readers - no matter that half their children had been up all night in tears.
In the end we carried hundreds of words on the suicide. Part of our thinking was, to be frank, strategic. How could we convince the next generation of readers that newspapers were relevant to their lives if we ignored stories that were, well, relevant to their lives? But actually, it was right in news terms to cover Cobain's death properly. However you look at it, it was a significant story about the world as it was. Not as we would like it to be, but as it was.
And of course we were accused of dumbing down. The same furious fights they've been having in New York over Britney. And this same debate has raged not only in newspapers, but in more or less any organisation that deals in creative and intellectual property.
You might say two things about this current debate. One is that it is utterly understandable. We've all seen enough dumbing-down in our lives to want to be on guard against any more manifestations of it. The other is that the debate is a terribly confused one. One in which we can't quite find even the right language to describe our fears. Concepts such as elitism, a canon of works, access, diversity and standards clash into each other - or, worse still, miss altogether.
Would many of us prefer to live in a world in which Britten or Birtwistle outsold Britney or Limp Bizkit? Of course. But if you're running a newspaper - notionally there to report the world as it is, rather than the world as we'd like it to be - you have to make tricky decisions about how much you can skew your coverage towards cultural forms that, however important, do not seem terribly popular in relative numerical terms. Certainly, any newspaper that had the same age profile as the audience for classical music concerts would be thinking about filing for chapter 11 protection.
Surveys suggest that you have a 4% chance of finding anyone under the age of 24 at an average classical music concert, and a further 6% under 34. Young people appear overwhelmingly to find other sorts of music more appealing - and it's not dumb to explore that, or even celebrate it. The Britney Spears phenomenon is an interesting one. It was reported at one point that she even stirred the flinty heart of the prime minister's official spokesman. It would be perverse of the NYT not to write about her.
How ridiculous the London Times of the 1960s now seems. There it was at the heart of the most extraordinary cultural explosion - the music Tony Blair grew up with: the Beatles, the Stones, Pink Floyd, the Who - and barely a word about any of it was allowed into the paper.
The official history of the Times speaks of this period under Sir William Haley in these terms: "Though the Beatles' music was discussed by the paper's music critic, and reference made to the 'chains of pan-diatonic clusters' discernible in it, Beatlemania and all that it represented was beneath Haley's notice."
This was a paper that sold itself under the slogan "Top People Read the Times". It was unashamedly elitist. A paper run by the same man who, when he was running the BBC, said of the Third programme that it should aim at people "of taste and intelligence and education... it need not cultivate any other audience".
But I've just stubbed my toe on that problem word "elitist". The lowest term of abuse for some, the highest accolade for others. Should we accept that classical music is an elite art form and stop fretting? Or should we do everything in our power to cultivate the widest possible audience for it, regardless of the compromises that might involve? Even, as Sir Tom Allen shuddered last year, to quartets in wet T-shirts.
It is evident that many people working in - and treasuring - the serious arts still feel embattled. It seems to them as if there is a widespread philistinism around: a remorseless drive in favour of the predominant commercially successful mass culture.
Anyone with teenage kids will know how overwhelming the influence of a few gargantuan entertainment companies is today. The sums ploughed into creating, promoting and selling particular strands of popular culture - and the overwhelmingly effective marketing of celebrity - are simply staggering.
So who to blame? The media? People usually do. But musicians are asking themselves enough searching questions to suggest that there is no knee-jerk attack on this perennially convenient punchbag.
Should we then blame the big entertainment corporations? That seems a little harsh. You might, I think, reasonably accuse them of a failure of nerve over more serious forms of music. But they have shareholders. They have to make money, and they have perfected (we're talking pre-MP3) ways of catering for - or manipulating - mass tastes.
What about publicly funded organisations that - precisely because they don't have the pressure to turn in quarter-on-quarter growth - might have been expected to do better? This is nearer the mark, I think. There are two in particular that, it seems to me, had some sort of duty to champion forms of culture not simply in deference to that rather grim piece of accountant-speak, "market failure", but because they are intrinsically valuable and glorious.
One is the BBC. There has, until very recently, been a terrible failure of Corporate nerve over the televising of serious arts programmes for mainstream audiences. How on earth did it happen that for so many barren years the BBC governors nodded on the job while the arts output all but withered away?
It can't be that the governors don't like art or music. It's an interesting exercise to go through the Who's Who entries of the people in charge during the mid- to late 1990s. Nearly all of them indicate some sort of professional or personal interest in the arts. Yet, collectively, they never stamped their feet and said the BBC's commitment to the arts was verging on shameful.
The other obvious target is government. Again, how did it happen that music education in this country - full of significant and exciting initiatives - was decimated? How did it happen that our politicians - a quarter of whom (read Who's Who again) boast of their love of music - presided over the gradual destruction of a system which, if not perfect, was pretty good? When you have loved something yourself, how can you pull the ladder up on the next generation?
Destroying things is notoriously easier than rebuilding them. So, though we finally have real signs of progress at the top, there are mountains to climb.
Many people will have been struck by the story of the tank outside the Baghdad Museum a little more than three weeks ago. The museum - which holds one of the greatest collections of antiquities anywhere in the world - knew what was likely to happen when civil order broke down. As they knew it would. They warned the world. The world didn't really listen. The nearby American tank crew shrugged off frantic appeals from museum staff to move a few yards and block off the entrance. They had no orders. It was not enough of a priority.
Again, you wonder, how did this happen? Washington is full of wonderful museums. The war planners doubtless spend weekends in them with their families, to learn, to be enriched. Just like politicians and BBC governors love their art and their theatre and their music.
It is an interesting question: how can priorities in the personal lives of those who have the power not translate into priorities for others?
So, yes, newspapers do have a duty. Not only to nurture, explain and report on all aspects of our culture, from Britney to Britten. But also to question and hold accountable those who know the importance of art and have the power actually to do something. To report when they do something. And also to report when they do nothing.
Sometimes it doesn't take much. The tank in Baghdad needed to move 60 yards. Because it wasn't anyone's priority, 14,000 priceless artefacts were lost. On such small decisions - to act, or not to act - hang extraordinary consequences.
· This is an edited version of a speech given last night at the Royal Philharmonic Society Awards. Alan Rusbridger is the editor of the Guardian.